Free agency came to baseball in the 1970′s, which coincidentally happens to the same decade in which I became a baseball fan. In that time, I’ve watched many team make great moves in to secure that “one piece they needed” to win. I’ve also seen lots of complete gag-jobs; a team drives a dump truck full of money off a cliff over some guy who immediately after signing his contract completely forgets how to play the goddamn game, or better yet blows every joint in his body.
Bear in mind, these may not be the ten worst deals of all time, but they are ten of my personal favorites.
10) Chan Ho Park – Signed by the Texas Rangers in 2002, Five Years, $65 million
I distinctly remember this guy pitching in Dodger Stadium, and loving the fact that it may be one of the most forgiving ball parks for a meatball artist like Park. He manage two season in Los Angeles in which he posted records of 18-10 and 15-11. This “success” prompted the historically-pitching thin Texas Rangers to cough up one of the fattest contracts ever given to a pitcher at that time. Of course, the Rangers forgot that home plate in their ball park outpaces Cape Canaveral for the number of moon-shots which have been launched there. This is why Park posted ERAs in Texas of 5.75, 7.58, 5.74, and 5.66. Those number very well could have been worse had a slew of injuries not kept him off the mound for big chunk of his time in Arlington. At least he had a sense of humor.
9) Gary Matthews Jr. – Signed by the Los Angeles Angels in 2006, Five Years, $50 million
The inverse of Park…If you think signing a 31-year-old guy who just had a great year (.313, 44 doubles, 19 home runs, 79 RBIs, and an .866 OPS) in a great hitters’ park (Texas, oddly enough), you should probably have your checkbook locked up. The Angels signed Matthews to that fat deal on the basis of his best season ever, only to watch him become a .247 hitter with marginal power. The proof the Angels knew they blew it came the very next year when they signed Torii Hunter for $90 million to take Matthews place in center field.
8 ) Vince Coleman – Signed by the New York Mets in 1990, Four Years, $11.95 million
Here’s another bad idea…signing the guy who is the face of a hated rival. That almost never works. While the Mets and Cardinals battled through the 1980s, St. Louis relied on a formula of speed and defense which won them NL East titles winning them the NL East in 1982, 1985, and 1987. Meanwhile, the Mets used an opposite concoction of pitching and power, but after the 1990 season, the power angle was diminishing with the free-agent departure of Darryl Strawberry. This prompted the Mets to sign Vince Coleman away from the Cardinals, banking on the hope that at once his speed would drive the Mets’ offense and the loss would cripple the Cardinals.
That bank went bankrupt in a hurry.
Coleman spent more time on the disabled list than he did on the field; he played in fewer than half the team’s games in his first two season in New York. Then it just got stupid. Coleman injured Dwight Gooden by hitting him with a golf club he was swinging in the clubhouse. He got suspended for half the 1993 season for tossing a lit firecracker into a group of autograph seekers in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium parking lot in July 1993. That marked the end for Coleman as Met; they literally paid the Kansas City Royals in cash to take him in return for a washed-up Kevin McReynolds.
7) Carl Pavano – Signed by the New York Yankees in 2004, Four Years, $39.95 million
Pavano is a journeyman pitcher who has seen time with the Boston Red Sox, Montreal Expos, Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and the Minnesota Twins. To be honest, if it weren’t for that contract he signed with the Bronx Bombers, Pavano would probably be best-known for being traded for Pedro Martinez and being one of several ball-players who got to pork Alyssa Milano.
The trouble was that once he became a Yankee, Pavano became a walking medical school experiment. Pavano spent so much time on the disabled list he earned the title “American Idle;”and it isn’t hard to see why when you look at the list of Pavano’s injuries in New York.
- Shoulder (2005)
- Bruised buttocks (2006)
- Broken ribs (2006)
- Elbow strain, which led to Tommy John surgery (2007)
- A “suspicious” hip injury (2008)
To this day, Pavano is largely reviled by Yankees fans because in his four years in New York, he made exactly 26 starts, which includes missing an entire season due to the aforementioned Tommy John surgery. Boil it all down, and you get a grand total of a 9-8 record while posting ERAs of 4.77, 4.76 and 5.77. To look at it another way, Pavano made $4.44 million for each of his wins as a Yankee.
All of this makes you wonder what Minnesota Twins fans think of this..and who might sign the free-agent pitcher. After all, it seems Pavano nearly killed himself with a snow shovel in the off-season.
6) Albert Belle – Signed by the Baltimore Orioles in 1998, Five Years, $65 million
In the 1990′s, there was really no question that Albert Belle struck fear in the hearts of American League pitchers. He was also feared by teammates and fans alike, exhibiting an explosive temper that he was willing to loose on just about anybody. On the field, from 1992-98 Belle was good for on average of 40 home runs and 126 RBI. While he did drive in 100 in his first two seasons in Baltimore, that would be the end as a degenerating arthritic hip forced him into retirement the end of the 2000 season.
5) Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle – Signed by the Colorado Rockies in 2000; Hampton for Eight Years, $121 million, Neagle for Five Years, $51 million
We’ve already discussed the problems inherent in signing pitcher for big money, only to put them in launching pad ballparks. The Colorado Rockies didn’t heed that warning, and it led to some terrible decisions. They didn’t learn their lesson with the failed Darryl Kile signing, who posted ERAs of 5.20 and 6.61 in his two seasons in Colorado. This led to the Rockies doubling-down in 2000 by giving $172 million to two left-handers.
Here’s what they got for their money.
Mike Hampton was hampered by injuries which made him largely ineffective; he went 21-28 with ERAs of 5.41 and 6.15 respectively. Denny Neagle was a respectable pitcher who had compiled a 105-69 record with a 3.92 career ERA, until the Rockies made the mistake of putting him at the top of their rotation, after which he went 19-23, 5.56 with a 5.56 ERA in three seasons. This led to the Rockies releasing him with two years left on his contract.
4) Dave Collins – Signed by the New York Yankees in 1981, Three Years, $2.475 million
After the Yankees lost the 1981 World Series, George Steinbrenner declared that baseball in the 1980s would be a game of speed and not power. This gloriously led to a full decade and a half of Yankee suckitude, and the Dave Collins signing signaled the beginning of that era. Falling in love with Collins’ 79 steals in 1980, Steinbrenner looked to Colling to drive the Yankee offense. First of all, the Bronx Bombers were already bomb-crater deep with outfielders…they lready had Dave Winfield, Ken Griffey, Jerry Mumphrey, Lou Piniella, and Reggie Jackson. Then, Steinbrenner made the ham-skulled announcement that Collins would “get more at-bats than Winfield and Jackson.”
This helped drive Jackson out of the Bronx via free-agency, Collins fell 200 at-bats short of Winfield’s total, and he ended up being traded to Toronto at season’s end along with Mike Morgan and a nineteen-year-old Fred McGriff for some guy named Dale Murray.
3) Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones – Signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers; Pierre in 2006, Five years, $44 million – Jones in 2007, Two Years, $36.2 million
Here’s another “daily double,” but you might find yourself asking why are two signing in two different years listed as one item on this list. Because it was the Dodgers’ desperation which led to their making sequential and related bad decisions. The Pierre signing took no time at all to show itself as a mistake as he took his below-league-average on-base percentage and minuscule power into the offensive black hole known as Dodger Stadium (the very same Dodger Stadium that made Chan Ho Park a #1 pitcher) and exactly what you would expect to happen is exactly what happened.
Pierre became such a non-factor that the Dodgers went out the next year and gave big money to an over-the-hill Andruw Jones, who was coming off his worst season in Atlanta. Naturally, the Frank McCourt-era Dodgers decided it would be a good idea to pump big cash into him, thinking that bringing an aging slugger in decline to the cavernous Dodger Stadium could only have an upside. Once again, exactly what you would expect to happen is exactly what happened; Jones batted .158 with three home runs in 209 at bats.
Not only did signing Jones add another useless bat to the dodger outfield, it also meant shifting Pierre’s non-existent offensive to a “bat-first” position in left field. But here’s the best part…this all meant the Dodgers spent over two years and $80 million dollars only to discover they had a future All-Star ready for the job all along in Matt Kemp.
2) Wayne Garland – Signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1976, Ten Years, $2.3 million
You have to follow me closely on this one, because I know you are looking at that 2.3 million number and thinking that really isn’t that much money. What you must remember is that when free agency was foisted on baseball in 1976, nobody in baseball really understood the value of players because the free-agent market really hadn’t been set. You also need to consider that $2.3 million in 1976 would be the equivalent of $9.45 million today. Compared to today’s salaries, that still doesn’t seem like a big amount of money, but when you stop to consider that Garland’s previous year’s salary was $19,000, you start to understand why this was a big deal. He got a 1200% pay raise.
In 1976, the average major league’s salary was just over $51,000, and Wayne Garland made 37% less than average. In today’s terms, a player who made 37% less than the league average (which in 2012 was roughly $3.4 million) would be making about $1.26 million. Give that guy a 1200% pay raise like Garland got, and all of a sudden we a talking about a yearly salary of around $1.5 billion. Thankfully, baseball got this figured out before more guys who would never produce got paid the gross domestic product of Belize.
For what it’s worth, at the time of that deal, Garland was a 26-year-old right-hander who was coming off a 20-win season for the Baltimore Orioles in his first year as a major-league starter. This prompted the Indians to surmise that Garland was the answer to their chronic pitching concern. Next thing you know, Cleveland springs 1200% over ten years on Garland, who promptly blows his shoulder out the following spring training.
Feeling like he owed the team, Garland tried to pitch through it, but he really only wrecked his arm. He worked 282.2 innings (which make him an uber-workhorse by today’s standards), but he lost 19 games in what would be his only full season for the tribe. After that, he would make only six starts in 1978 and fourteen in 1979. He did get up to 150 innings pitched in 1980, but he was finally released by the Indians after yet another injury-stifled season in 1981.
1) Bruce Sutter – Signed by the Atlanta Braves in 1984, Six Years, $10.125 million
For nine seasons, Bruce Sutter was as “lights-out” as you would want a closer to be. He was “the Beard” before Brian Wilson. He led the National League in saves five times, and he even took home a Cy Young award. Since the Braves needed a stopper at the back-end of the bullpen, and they have a boatload of Ted Turner’s money, signing Sutter seemed like the suitable solution.
The Braves needed a closer, and signing Sutter seemed like the obvious answer. The one factor the Braves didn’t account for was time. By 1984, most of the sand had sifted through Sutter’s hourglass. While he did still post 23 saves in 1985, he also blew 12, all while his ERA bloated from 1.54 to 4.48. There wasn’t a shipment of new sand in 1986 either; a season in which he only took the mound in 16 games, and he only notched 14 saves in 1987, after which he hung up his beard.
The worst part of this contract was it was structured in such a way as to defer half the money at 13 percent interest annually to be paid over 30 years starting in 1991. This means the Braves are paying Sutter $1.3 million per year until 2021.